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    MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney started a Caucasian-Ukrainian tour yesterday.

    His challenging task is to promise weapons to Georgia and NATO membership to Ukraine, and to convince Azerbaijan to accept the Nabucco pipeline project.

    He will talk with the Azerbaijani president in Baku on September 2 and 3, reaffirm American support for the Georgian president on September 4, and later in the day go to Ukraine.

    The weeklong trip was planned long ago. In fact, Cheney intended to stop over in Tbilisi and Baku on his way to the Ambrosetti Forum, Italy's own annual mini-Davos set next to Lake Como. Kiev was added to his itinerary at the last moment.

    Although visits to Azerbaijan and Georgia were planned long before the conflict over South Ossetia erupted, they have since acquired special meaning. Cheney's trip to the Caucasus and Ukraine is possibly the last attempt by the Bush Administration to set up a Black Sea-Caucasian cordon on Russia's southern border as a gift to the next administration.

    Cheney seldom goes abroad without a bulky portfolio of proposals and/or warnings to U.S. allies, potential allies, or countries unenlightened about the benefits of friendship with Washington.

    Richard Bruce Cheney, 67, is a politician with terrific punch and the main author of the current U.S. foreign and military policies (perhaps better described as military policy with a minor diplomatic slant). Cheney is a man in his own league and the main ideologist of the neoconservative policy of the Republican administration and the country as a whole.

    He is the epitome of American conservatism, having served as chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, defense minister for President George Bush Sr. and vice president of President George Bush Jr.

    In 1997, Cheney teamed up with Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol and others to establish the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative U.S. think tank whose self-stated goal is to "promote American global leadership." The project's ideas have been implanted in all the foreign policy programs of the Bush Administration.

    Cheney says his foreign policy teacher Bradford Wesferfield, a Yale political scientist, helped to shape his hard-line approach to foreign policy, but an article in The Nation in 2004 reported that Dr. Westerfield came to regret the hard-nosed lessons Mr. Cheney said he had learned.

    Dr. Westerfield characterized the current Bush Administration as overly confrontational, calling that "precisely the wrong approach."

    Cheney orchestrated the U.S. invasion of Panama, Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East, the anti-Iraqi policy and, some say, the molding of Mikheil Saakashvili, described as the United States' main ally in the Caucasus.

    Wherever Cheney goes, he always makes clear what the U.S. wants and how best to fulfill its wishes and, by implication, avoid the unpleasant consequences of non-compliance.

    In Tbilisi, he will offer "friend Michael" U.S. support and rearmament of the Georgian army with U.S.-made weapons.

    In Kiev, he will assure President Viktor Yushchenko that Ukraine will definitely enter NATO, which is not quite true, of course, but will help Cheney, who has always seen military ties as the main instrument of U.S. foreign policy, to promote military cooperation with Ukraine.

    His task in Baku will be more difficult. He must cajole President Ilkham Aliyev into approving the Nabucco gas pipeline, which Baku, along with much of Europe, is coming to view with growing mistrust.

    The nearly 2,000-mile pipeline, which the United States has been advocating, would connect Azerbaijan with Central Europe. It will run across Georgia (bypassing Armenia and Russia) towards Erzurum in Turkey and on to Austria's Baumgarten via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.

    In fact, there are plans to add a trans-Caspian extension to Nabucco, to pump gas from Turkmenistan to Europe.

    Nabucco has already had its share of problems. The geopolitical rationale for the project - to bypass Russia - has increased spending from $3 billion to $4.9 billion, and the cost now stands at $7.9 billion. Construction should begin in 2010 and the pipeline is to come on stream in 2013.

    To turn a profit, the pipeline should annually pump 30 billion cubic meters (1.06 trillion cu f) of gas. Azerbaijan can supply only 8 billion, and that only after it commissions the second phase of the Shah Deniz deposit in the Caspian Sea.

    So, there is not enough gas for the pipe, which will make its gas very expensive indeed.

    The Caucasian conflict has scared the European gas and energy block, which thinks in cubic meters or feet. The European and Azerbaijani energy and gas processing companies are alarmed at the prospect of the pipe being controlled by such an unbalanced politician as Saakashvili.

    The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) has started sending oil to Europe bypassing Georgia. This year, it will pump between 300,000 tons (2.2 million bbl) and 400,000 tons (2.9 million bbl) of crude, initially delivered along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, through the Baku-Novorossiisk pipe. It made the decision on August 7, when Georgia started bombing South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali.

    Azerbaijan is also negotiating the transit of additional gas to Europe via Russia.

    "Baku's new interest [in Russia] may stem from a desire to protect the relationship with Moscow, or a sense that Nabucco is less likely than ever to materialize," writes the Eurasia Group, British energy consultants who offer analysis on developments in Russia and the CIS, Central Asia and the Caspian.

    Europeans have started talking about the need to involve Russia in the Nabucco project to make it viable. Russia alone can provide enough gas to make the pipeline profitable by rerouting its gas from Blue Stream.

    Interestingly, Russian energy giant Gazprom holds a 50% stake in Austria's Baumgarten, the terminal for the Nabucco pipeline.

    "This goes against the whole concept of Nabucco, that it would not be either Russian or Russian-controlled gas," says Zeyno Baran, an energy and Central Asian expert at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington and the wife of Matthew Bryza, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.

    Mr. Bryza covers the Caucasian region and has been actively lobbying for Saakashvili. Some even say he was his direct political mentor.

    The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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